Genius of the Monet exhibit is its overwhelming avalanche of hype

Jacques Kelly

December 02, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Because I live about five blocks from the Baltimore Museum of Art, it has been hard not to escape talk about the museum's exhibit of the Impressionist paintings of artist Claude Monet.

Yet, a visit to the exhibition left me with the impression that, despite the beauty of some of the individual canvases, the show was essentially small and, as such, much oversold.

The judgment that this display did not live up to its advance publicity was because of an avalanche of promotion overkill. City cabs I take have Monet lapel buttons on their dashboards. There are now blue Monet street signs to direct visitors to Art Museum Drive.

Shopping malls have opened with less fanfare.

The genius of this show isn't the actual canvases but the skill of its marketers and promoters. If Baltimore has Monet on its mind, it's because of the success of a selling campaign. I'm delighted so many people are visiting one of Baltimore's culture houses. I'm weary of the way it has been accomplished.

And there is nothing small about the array of gift shops at the Monet show. Art Museum visitors have their choice of two -- one as you exit the show and another on the floor below. And, since the exhibit opened, each has been well patronized by shoppers. Friends have commented how much they enjoyed these

sales rooms and how they have been able to pick up so many Christmas gifts there. More than one person has told me the gift shops were better than the show.

I myself plead guilty to the charges of succumbing to Monet Mania. Six years ago, while visiting Paris, I enthusiastically signed up for a tour of the artist's home and garden at Giverny, a long ride outside the city. The bus was filled with chattering tourists.

But, after 20 minutes on a perfect May afternoon at Monet's residence, I watched the German, English and Spanish ladies smash down the flower border and trample the gravel garden walks. I realized a quiet garden, considerably smaller than our Sherwood Gardens, was simply not designed as a showcase for paying visitors. My memory of the garden's roses, peonies, iris and water lilies is blurred by the vision of busload after busload of culture-crazed tourists, myself included.

The 1980s saw saturation-selling come into its own. Musicals, such as "Les Miserables," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon," were blown up into events far in excess of their worth as entertainment. And, didn't many matinee-goers exit the theater with promotional T-shirts, souvenir books, cassettes and other trinkets? Similarly, the Baltimore Orioles wrung every ounce out of their last taxpayer-subsidized season at Memorial Stadium.

And so the Baltimore Museum of Art has joined -- becoming a shopping mall of reproduction art trinkets.

The world has changed considerably from the time of two great 1960s Baltimore Museum shows, "Four Paris Painters" and "Vincent van Gogh."

If I recall, these well-attended, superior-content exhibits had only a few post cards and catalogs for sale.

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